Wednesday 30 October 2013

127. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Herons are very widespread throughout Europe and beyond, being sedentary in much of western Europe but migratory in parts of northern and eastern Europe.They are easily recognisable and inhabit a large range of environments including rivers, canals, lakes and ponds in both urban and rural areas. They nest colonially in large trees near water and the juveniles look similar to the adults, but without the white forehead and black stripe on the side of the crown - instead they have a grey forehead and crown and a greyer neck. In flight they hold their neck retracted (like all the herons and egrets), which helps tell them apart from the sometimes similar-ish Common Crane, which holds its neck outstretched when flying. Although common, Grey Herons are always fun to watch, especially if they are fishing - on one particularly memorable occasion I saw a Grey Heron scoff down a fair-sized Pike at Sandwell Valley, it took the heron some time (during which it had a rather fat neck) but it was not to be defeated.

Grey Heron, ©dhobern, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Grey Heron painting.
I was feeling once again with my last few efforts that I had got a bit bogged down in details as I am wont to do, so I tried really hard with this one to not let that happen, and I'm quite please with it. Although I've got the shape a bit wonky, the heron looks a bit off balance.

126. Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Great Egrets, or Great White Egrets, are another one that is slowly making its way north through Europe - vagrants to the UK have been increasing for a while, and their first recorded breeding in the UK occurred last year at Shapwick Heath, just next door to Ham Wall where the Little Bitterns nested this year! Great Egrets are distributed patchily throughout southern Europe and their increasing population trend is thought to be the reason they are spreading north. Apart from the size difference, they can be told apart from Little Egrets by their yellow bill (except in the breeding season when it becomes mostly black), their lack of nape plumes, all-dark legs and feet, much longer legs (projecting way out beyond the tail in flight) and slower, more ponderous wingbeats. Great Egrets also gain very long ornamental plumes during the breeding season as seen in the photo. Their habitats comprise a wide range of inland and coastal wetlands including shallow swampy lakes with vegetation, marshes, rivers, estuaries, lagoons and mudflats.

Great Egret, ©mikebaird, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Great Egret painting.
I liked the juxtaposition of shapes in this hunched egret, and I thought I'd try adding a background seeing as the bird is all white.

Monday 28 October 2013

125. Western Reef Egret (Egretta gularis)

Western Reef Egrets turn up in Europe only as rare vagrants - their main distribution is around tropical and subtropical coasts of Africa and parts of the Middle East. There are two colour morphs, the dark slaty one shown and a white one which looks very similar to Little Egret, but Western Reef Egrets have a longer, slimmer bill which is often more extensively yellow than Little Egret's, and the yellow of their feet can extend up the legs (I've not really selected the best photo to illustrate these differences!) They are coast-dwellers, preferring shores, estuaries, mudflats, lagoons and mangroves.

Western Reef Egret, ©quelea1945, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Western Reef Egret painting.
It'd been a while since I attempted a bird in flight, I'm rarely pleased with the results and this time was no exception! That shade of yellow is way too lurid for the feet too, looks like I've used a highlighter pen - argh!

Sunday 27 October 2013

Autumn fun in the Malvern Hills

Yesterday, as part of my continued making the most of my short study break before my next Open University module starts, I decided to go to the Malvern Hills. They're always a favourite destination for me anyway - they're very easy to get to, have a good range of habitats and feel like proper hills that you can have a good walk on, whilst still being very manageable - it's impossible to get lost there, and there are plenty of places in Great Malvern to refuel with tasty grub (very important for my shrew-like metabolic rate). My decision was also influenced by Worcestershire Birding's tweet from Thursday, maybe this time I would finally get lucky and see a flipping Ring Ouzel!

I started by walking very slowly up Happy Valley, as this was one of the places Ring Ouzel had been reported. Plus it had also started raining so I was in no hurry to get to the top! Treecreeper and Green Woodpecker were nice sightings as I made my way up through the trees. Unfortunately it seemed as though the Ring Ouzel had probably moved on since Thursday....however I was soon distracted from Ouzel-related thoughts towards the top of the valley, by a Rowan tree a short distance from the path which turned out to be stuffed with Brambling, and topped off with a single Fieldfare! I was dead excited as in my limited experiences, I'd only previously seen Bramblings as individuals, not flocks, so it was great to see around 25 of them quietly and busily feeding away at the Rowan berries. It was a year tick for me as well, brills! I watched the Bramblings until they flew off together, and at the top of the valley saw the flock again a couple of times, now grown to towards 40 birds.

Record shot from my clunky camera - how many Bramblings can you count?

The top of Happy Valley.
Up on the top, the usual Meadow Pipits and Ravens were about, as well as lots of Redwings and Fieldfares to-ing and fro-ing. As I was getting peckish I decided to leave the Worcestershire Beacon and beyond until after lunch! Before I headed for food however I spotted a flower to try and ID:

I think it's Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia).
Then it was down another valley to St Ann's Well cafe where I dined on hearty soup outside and drank delicious spring water from the well!

St Ann's Well Cafe.

 Outdoor seating in a lovely setting.

The spring.
Awesome erosion of the marble base of the well!

After that it was back up the hills and over the Worcestershire Beacon, the highest peak of the Malverns, and onwards for a bit along the hills.

The Worcestershire Beacon.
View south along the Malvern Hills.
Although I didn't see so much in the afternoon bird-wise, the changing weather conditions meant the views of the surrounding countryside were constantly transforming in spectacular fashion! I found this fungus but am rubbish at fungi identification, something else to work on!

Unknown fungi!

I also had a look at another of the sites where Ring Ouzel had been reported, Dingle Quarry, but again with no luck, although I did enjoy great views of a hunting Kestrel overhead.

Upper Dingle Quarry.
My route back down into Great Malvern took me once again down Happy Valley - a Sparrowhawk and juvenile Stonechat on the way were nice sightings, and although there was no Ring Ouzel in sight, a Fieldfare was still at the top of the same Rowan tree that I'd seen one in earlier with the Bramblings - wonder if it was the same one? There were plenty of berries there to eat so I suppose it'd have no reason necessarily to move on!

Stonechat record shot.

I got the 17:10 train back to Birmingham University (conveniently 25 minutes' walk from my house) and was feeling pretty sleepy by the time I got home, so we chilled out in the evening and watched Poirot, enjoyably daft stuff. What a great day!

Friday 25 October 2013

124. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egrets are leading the vanguard of the UK egret invasion! They have been colonising rapidly over the last couple of decades or so, gradually spreading northwards from continental Europe. They can certainly be seen regularly here in the West Midlands now in the right spots, e.g. RSPB Middleton Lakes. They are larger than a Cattle Egret but smaller than a Great White, and can be told apart from a Cattle Egret in non-breeding plumage by their longer darker bill, more slim and elegant body and its legs and feet, which in the adult are usually black and yellow respectively (Cattle Egret's are uniformly coloured). They like both fresh and salt water and can be found in shallow lakes, coastal lagoons, rivers and along shorelines. Most western European populations are fairly sedentary, whereas eastern European populations are migratory, spending their winters in Africa.

Little Egret, ©Ferruccio Zanone, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Little Egret painting.
Hmm, not too shabby and I even (just about) managed to do something with the feet.

123. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)

Squacco Heron is another one that turns up in the UK occasionally as a vagrant. Their breeding range is distributed patchily around the Mediterranean and southern Europe, across into parts of the Middle East, and they winter in Africa. The photo shows the adult's breeding plumage; outside the breeding season it is a duller brown and the nape and neck are more strongly striped. The Squacco Heron's wings are all white, but they are hidden when the bird is on the ground - however in flight it can appear almost all white. Squacco Herons' preferred habitat is freshwater ponds, streams, swamps, rivers and lakes with abundant vegetation.

Squacco Heron, ©Giuss95, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Squacco Heron painting.
I wasn't too happy with this just after I'd done it, but actually looking back it's not so bad! As usual I ran out of time to finish the feet, one day I will start with the feet to prevent this.....

Monday 21 October 2013

122. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Cattle Egrets are very widespread, occurring around the world in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate areas. In Europe they are distributed patchily around parts of the Mediterranean, and also France and Belgium; they turn up occasionally in the UK as vagrants but we could be seeing more of them in future due to climate change. Some populations of Cattle Egrets are strongly migratory, whilst others only undergo small-scale dispersive movements.

The Cattle Egret in the photo is in breeding plumage; outside of the breeding season they lose their golden feathers and are plain white with a dark bill. Distinguishing features include their small size, short bill and relatively uniformly coloured legs, which turn greyer outside the breeding season. Their preferred habitat is vegetation by water margins - they nest colonially in trees - and also wet and dry grassland; as the name implies they often associate with grazing animals such as cattle.

Cattle Egret, ©RedTail_Panther, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Cattle Egret painting.

Quite a quick one tonight, only half an hour as I also wanted to cram in some Yoga too. Haha only just realised how shonky that back leg is, oops!

Sunday 20 October 2013

121. Striated Heron (Butorides striata)

Striated Herons are small and long-billed herons, which generally do not occur in Europe - the nearest they are found is probably Egypt. However they are widespread throughout the world, occurring throughout much of South America, Africa, Australasia and the far east, with different races inhabiting different areas. Most populations are sedentary but the far eastern races migrate south after breeding. Their preferred habitat is forested water margins, around fresh or salt water, and they may also be found in a wide range of other habitats including salt and mudflats, swamps, marshy fields, reedbeds and tidal zones.

Striated Heron, ©jvverde, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Striated Heron painting.
Took a while over this, I'm not sure how long exactly, I just kept painting until dinner was ready. However as you can see I still didn't manage to finish, damn those fiddly striations! I won't be able to spend that long on my birds in the week, however as I'll be starting on the egrets tomorrow I'm hoping it won't be a problem....

Afternoon at Upton Warren

This has been my first completely empty weekend for what feels like months (yay for study breaks) so yesterday I decided to take a trip to somewhere I don't get a chance to go to very often, Upton Warren nature reserve near Bromsgrove. In fact I was trying to remember, and I think I've only been there once before - to see a Red-necked Phalarope with Pete the Snipe of Sandwell Valley fame a couple of years ago (good times). It takes a while to get to if you don't drive (a 50 minute bus journey to be exact) but the buses are pretty frequent, I would like to try and make the effort to go there more really.

It was fairly quiet bird-wise during my visit but I enjoyed wandering around nonetheless, it kind of made it easier to do some drawings without getting distracted by too much exciting bird action! There weren't many people around either and I had the hides mostly to myself which made me feel less self-conscious about drawing. Still, my efforts are rather on the tentative side, it will take a lot more practice to develop my confidence in drawing from life.

Sketches of Blue Tit, Great Tit and Curlew.

The Blue Tits were visiting the feeders viewable from one of the hides, they were good and close but move so quickly, I struggled to capture them with any success! My favourite of the drawings above though is the front 'head-on' view. That Great Tit is all over the place though, don't know what is going on there!

Blue Tit at the feeders.

The Curlews were a lot more stationary and thus a bit easier to sketch.

Curlews and friends.
I had been intending to visit the Moors Pools too after wandering round the Flashes, but a combination of advancing hours and the arrival of some fairly heavy rain made my mind up for me, and fortunately the bus arrived at the bus stop a couple of minutes after I did, result!

The Flashes.
Next time I will definitely make it to the Moors Pools too!

Thursday 17 October 2013

120. Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Black-crowned Night Herons (or just plain Night Herons) are my favourite herons, I like their short chunky stature and suave combination of glossy black and pale grey plumage with a lovely deep red eye! They are very widely distributed, occurring on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. In Europe, their breeding range is mostly around the Mediterranean but also into France and parts of central and eastern Europe, and they winter in Africa. They can turn up in the UK as vagrants and I think there may be one or two feral populations in the UK. Although they are mainly active at night, they can also been seen in the day; their preferred habitat is marshes, lake and river margins and swamps, with freshwater, brackish or saline water, and trees to roost in. The adult is illustrated; the juvenile looks similar in its second year, but is less strongly marked, being grey-brown with a streaked breast; in its first year it is brown with white speckles.

Black-crowned Night Heron, ©whifflepeg, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Black-crowned Night Heron painting.

More watercolours.....I spent some time on this getting really into the colours, especially the iridescent black feathers, love a bit of iridescence. I didn't have time to finish the feet properly though. Must admit I added the eye light in with white acrylic paint afterwards, naughty, as I forgot to leave it white when filling in the red!

Wednesday 16 October 2013

119. Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)

Little Bitterns are seen usually as vagrants in the UK, but this could be starting to change - their breeding range covers much of southern and central Europe and they winter in Africa, however along with other members of the heron family, their range may be advancing northwards into the UK, possibly due to climate change. This year, a pair successfully fledged young at RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset, exciting times!

Little Bitterns are even smaller than Moorhens, and although secretive may often come out to the edges of reedbeds when feeding. The photo below is the male, the female is similarly coloured but much more streaked especially on the back and throat. In flight both show a prominent and unmistakeable creamy buff wing patch (slightly darker in the female).

Little Bittern, ©Mark S Jobling, via Wikimedia Commons.
Little Bittern painting.
I finally got out my watercolours, yay! Was really looking forward to having a go with them, and although at one point I thought my efforts were going to end in disaster, I think the end result is OK actually for a first attempt. I think my approximation of the colours is alright and it's fairly in proportion, but some of my brushmarks are pretty shonky. Can't wait to do some more watercolours and try to improve my technique!

I've been a bit slow with the drawings this week as we're moving offices at work, so have been knackered in the evenings after days spent packing boxes/moving furniture/unpacking boxes. It's nearly done now though.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

118. American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

American Bitterns are seen as vagrants very occasionally in western Europe, and are widespread across their home range of North America, breeding in Canada and northern USA, and wintering in the southern USA and central America. They have similar habits to the Eurasian Bittern, although can be less secretive and have less of a preference for reedbeds - they like marshes, bogs and wet meadows. American Bitterns are slightly smaller too, with more uniform upperparts and a more heavily striped foreneck.

American Bittern, ©Mathesont, via Flickr Creative Commons.

American Bittern sketch.
Proportions went a bit haywire here towards the rear end and it's altogether a bit on the chunky side!

Sunday 13 October 2013

Sandwell Valley - October

Today I was once again volunteering at RSPB Sandwell Valley, despite a day of truly dreadful weather being forecast. I hadn't been since August as September had been filled by other things, e.g. final assignments and revision, so was expecting a different assemblage of birds today compared to my last visit. 

When I arrived, perhaps due to said weather, there were no other volunteers available to open the hide with me so I went for a wander in the rain to see what I could see. That turned out to be not much out of the ordinary, but included my first Redwing of the autumn, prompting me to mutter darkly under my breath 'winter is coming' whilst really hamming up my Yorkshire accent Sean Bean-style. Also around were plenty of Snipe, new arrivals since I was last there, a ton of (well, 25) Cormorants, and the first few Wigeon and Goosander. Luckily I was well waterproofed but after an hour or so the damp was starting to seep in and my befogged spectacles were becoming somewhat tiresome, so I was relieved when some other volunteers arrived so that the hide could be opened.

Things were pretty quiet in the hide both bird- and visitor-wise, which at least meant I could get on with some drawing!

Lapwings hunkering down on the island from the hide.
There were some very active Grey Wagtails around, one of my favourites and they came nice and close too:

Grey Wagtail from the hide.
I tried to sketch a couple of Snipe but they were very active, I kept in mind the advice from Killian Mularney in John Busby's 'Drawing Birds' (excellent birthday gift from my parents) to just draw the parts of a bird as you see them and eventually you should end up with bits and bobs you can compile a complete sketch from. I'll have to come back to Snipe as they disappeared into the undergrowth, so I moved onto a much more stationary Grey Heron instead which I'm quite pleased with. The Grey Wagtail coming close was a good sketching opportunity too.

Sketches of Common Snipe and Grey Heron.
Grey Wagtail sketch.

Saturday 12 October 2013

117. Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)

Eurasian Bitterns are known for being secretive characters, preferring to skulk around in their reedbed habitat for the most part remaining unseen. Their cryptic plumage is the perfect camouflage; in flight they can look somewhat owl-like, with their brown barred feathers and rounded wings. The strange booming song of the male in spring sounds like someone blowing over the top of a glass bottle, but louder - it can carry a long way. If you are standing close-ish, sometimes you can hear the male breathing in before he booms. During the breeding season, Eurasian Bitterns are completely restricted to large reedbeds, but at other times they are more mobile and may visit a wider range of habitats in search of food.

Eurasian Bitterns populations in the UK are now recovering after intensive conservation efforts to restore reedbeds, but they are still scarce.

Eurasian Bittern, ©Marek Szczepanek, via Wikimedia Commons.
Eurasian Bittern sketch.
I spent longer than usual on this one, quite pleased with it. I was originally intending to try it in watercolours but then realised I didn't have any black left, doh. So watercolours will wait until I've been to the art supplies shop in town next week.

Thursday 10 October 2013

116. Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmeus)

I'm back! The non-stop revision is over and the exam is done, hurrah. I think it went OK but who knows, I will find out how I did next month. So, to continue where I left off.....

Pygmy Cormorants really are rather small, being around the size of a Coot. Apart from the obvious size difference, Pygmy Cormorants have a much longer tail than the other members of the cormorant  family covered, a shorter bill and a shorter neck although this can appear longer when the Pygmy Cormorant stretches it. The adult's breeding plumage is blackish green with a bronzy sheen, and outside of the breeding season it has a pale chin and browner chest. Like the other cormorants, it is pretty sociable and forms small flocks with others of its kind.

Their preferred habitat is coastal wetlands, freshwater lakes, reedbeds and wet meadows, and they are distributed mainly around parts of the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Middle East. Some populations are sedentary and others migrate short distances to their breeding grounds.

Pygmy Cormorant, ©Martin Mecnarowski, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pygmy Cormorant sketch.
I didn't have time to finish this and was worried I might be a bit out of practice, I don't think it is too shonky though all things considered.